John Benfatti, Board member of Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture and founder of the Men’s Emergency Overnight Shelter
In 1994 the Riverdale Presbyterian Church formed a committee to address homelessness. Dr. Matthew Ies Spetter, then Leader of the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture (RYSEC), announced the news at a Sunday platform. I joined that committee because to me its work was the ultimate expression of what it means to be an Ethical Culture humanist.
The committee set two goals: (1) to open an emergency overnight shelter in Riverdale, and, (2) to find homeless individuals on the street and offer them whatever help we could. There are not a lot of such people in our Riverdale neighborhood, so we decided to go as far as the last stop of the Number 1 Subway Line and look for people sleeping on the trains.
The RYSEC Emergency Overnight Shelter Program began operating on March 31, 2003. In the beginning, we partnered with Congregation Tehillah, a new synagogue that shares our Society’s space. Eventually another synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, joined us. We then split up the responsibility for providing sleepover volunteers among the three organizations, making Hebrew Institute responsible for the first Monday of each month, Congregation Tehillah responsible for the second Monday and RYSEC responsible for the third, fourth and fifth Mondays.
The Hebrew Institute also set up a website (www.takethemameal.com) to coordinate donations of cooked meals for each Monday evening. In addition, we have student volunteers from Manhattan College each semester to help with setup, meal service and clean up after dinner. The students also sit with our guests during and after the meal providing some camaraderie for our guests. We also welcome our members and friends of the Society to volunteer at our shelter. One mother and her young children have been helping us set up our cots for the shelter almost every week since November 2015.
Our shelter is the only overnight homeless shelter in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. We serve only six men 1 night a week, on Mondays. The square footage of our space determines that we can only serve six persons. Our guests sleep in our Society’s meeting room, and they eat dinner and breakfast in the adjoining space next to our kitchen.
In October 2009, I began keeping a database of guests and volunteers. I filled in what I knew from March 2003. Based on my records, as at May 2, 2016 we have served 727 different individuals over the 13 years we have been operating.
A table and cot in the shelter. One of the challenges with being homeless is that you are often in public view in facilities and have little privacy. With this in mind, shelter guests were not photographed here.